Karl Marx is coming back into fashion - over 100 years since his death and 150 years exactly since the publication of his and Frederick Engels' Communist Manifesto. Nearly a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall led commentators to pronounce the 'end of history' and the 'death of socialism', all sorts of people are beginning to look at Marxist ideas in a new and often enthusiastic way.
Serious articles in magazines such as the New Yorker or the Modern Review - not noted for their left wing views - have been given over to explaining Marx's theory of crisis and how relevant it is today. Popular versions of his writings, such as the Communist Manifesto, have been selling in substantial numbers. The reason for this is relatively simple: the world is in such a mess that an increasing number of working people are looking for ways to change it. And they are finding that the traditional methods of doing so no longer seem to apply or to be at all effective.
The promises of expansion, wealth creation and happiness for the large majority - the watchwords of the 1980s - have been proved worthless, as millions of people throughout the world endure the daily experience of insecurity, joblessness or increased exploitation at work. Everywhere, but especially dramatically in the richest countries in the world, the gap between rich and poor is increasing. There is no longer the possibility of the capitalists claiming endless boom conditions exist as the supposed miracle economies of the Far East turn into their opposite.
Marx had an explanation for all these features of the system, as some of his new found friends are finding out. But he also understood that those who suffered exploitation under this system had the power to do something about it. The working class is the only force which is able to overthrow the capitalist system and create a socialist society based on production for everyone's needs, not for the dictates of capital.
For much of the period between the death of Marx and now, the dominant view inside the working class movements around the world was that gradual change would be sufficient to make workers' lives better. It might take time, but eventually poverty and inequality would decline. Events of the past 20 years have proved this wrong. As Marx himself predicted, the development of capitalism did not alleviate these problems but exacerbated them.
As the 1990s draw to a close, there is a widespread feeling that there has to be change towards greater equality. That is why throughout Europe, for example, Socialist or Labour governments have been elected in recent years. However, the experience of these parties in government has in no way matched working class expectations. The Blair government in Britain, for example, has brought millionaire businessmen into government while at the same time forcing through benefit cuts for single parents. Time and again its policies clash with the aspirations of working people.
Increasing numbers of people are discovering that the path to reform is closing and that if they want real change they are going to have to challenge the structures of exploitation which Marx described. Their experience is leading them to activity - against benefit cuts, for decent pensions, for a minimum wage - which in turn will lead some to rediscover the ideas of socialism and equality on which Marx based his theories. Those theories never went out of fashion for many socialists: now they are increasingly relevant to a new generation which is looking for change.
Special feature on 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto: see pages 13-20
We spoke to a German student in December about the wave of protest there
Germany is currently experiencing its biggest ever student movement, even bigger than 1968. At 80 universities, students are striking or occupying their colleges, and there has been a wave of enormous demonstrations; 50,000 students in Bonn, 30,000 in Berlin and even 15,000 in Wurzburg (the biggest demo there ever!)
It began spontaneously in November in Giessen University when 600 students turned up for a lecture intended for 40, because the college had oversubscribed the course. This has become common in Germany but this time the frustrated students refused to leave. A meeting was called immediately where students voted to strike. The action soon spread. In Frankfurt, a meeting of 900 law students voted for direct action, set up roadblocks in the city and occupied the central library. In an attempt to head off the protests the government offered an extra 100,000 deutschmarks (DM) for the education budget, but students rejected this, arguing that at least 9 billion DM was needed to make up for recent cuts. Protests continued to grow and soon students at colleges all over Germany were becoming involved in the movement.
There have been a series of cutbacks in funding over the last few years. This has combined with specific local issues such as poor library resources or tuition fees to create a mood of simmering anger in the colleges which has now spilled over into militant action.
The movement has begun to polarise politically. Those who argue that students should only focus on the 'single issue' and keep politics out of it are often those who are closer to the mainstream political parties. They say that politics should be left to the politicians. However, many students are moving to the left and view the question of education funding as an extremely political one. They have raised the slogan, 'Lecturers not the Eurofighter' to challenge the government funding priorities and are beginning to realise that in order to fight back effectively it is crucial to link the students with other movements.
Unlike the 1968 student movement, workers are already showing their support for the students' struggle. In Duisburg, where students occupied a motorway bridge, they were joined by the union representative from the nearby Krupp-Hoesch steel plant which had led a wave of protests earlier in the year. In Wurzburg, workers have set up solidarity committees with students. These developments highlight the political conclusions which both workers and students are beginning to draw.
The movement began spontaneously and many of the students at its head had little experience of struggle. The socialist grouping Linksruck (LR) argued why it is important to take direct action such as occupations. We also tried to bring in wider politics and issues such as the new imperialism, highlighted by the development of the Eurofighter. Some student union bureaucrats tried to throw out revolutionaries, however, with consistent political arguments around the need for occupations, and hard work to gain political trust within the movement, hundreds of students are relating to LR for discussion on the way forward.
Slogans such as 'Tax the rich - students and workers unite' reflect a political mood, and show what a great opportunity this is to rebuild the revolutionary left.
The German equivalent of the TUC is calling a demonstration in support of the students this month
The vocabulary of New Labour, which before and during the election seemed so benign, is being translated into real language faster than anyone could have dreaded. 'Compassion with a hard edge' was the phrase of the hour. Compassion was taken to mean a feeling of concern from government for the growing ranks of the desperately poor, especially the low paid, the single parents, the disabled. The hard edge would presumably be reserved for those who had helped themselves to the bounty of the Thatcher/Major years, the share option guzzlers, the pension swindlers, the growing army of arrogant billionaires.
It took only a few months for the real picture to emerge. There was compassion all right, but it was reserved exclusively for the rich. The manifesto promise not to raise a penny extra in tax on the rich was scrupulously observed. But the new ministers were not satisfied with mere compassion for the rich. They were appalled at how few of them were rich enough to make the big decisions of the hour.
There was only one millionaire among them - a fourth rate MP for Coventry whom no former Labour prime minister had even considered for office. There was nothing in the political career of Geoffrey Robinson which was even remotely impressive. But he was enormously rich. He had been left a fortune by a Belgian tax exile whose name inevitably was Madame Bourgeois. The very thought of a real millionaire with a real fortune evading tax in the Channel Islands was enough to shoot Robinson into the government as minister in charge of tax evasion.
One millionaire, however, was not enough. Into the highways and byways of the City of London went the new Labour leaders searching for Tories and union busters to take part in the new government: Lord Simon from Shell, Peter Davies from the Pru, Martin Taylor from Barclays Bank, even the crusted Thatcherite Alan Sugar of Amstrad and Tottenham Hotspur - all these and many more like them were ushered into Whitehall to help the new government with its social and economic policies.
The policies flowed quite naturally. The few election promises which were unpalatable to the rich were quickly jettisoned. To the manifesto pledge, 'We shall ban tobacco advertising', was added a proviso: 'except for millionaires who donate to the Labour Party'. From Blair's election promise, 'We have no plans to introduce tuition fees', the word 'no' was deleted. The real social problem quickly emerged. Too much was being spent by the 'feckless poor', and, it was claimed, people sat at home looking after children or pretended that their disablement prevented them from working. These people could be driven off the dole registers by denying them the pittance they got in extra benefit. The 'Welfare to Work' programme was launched with a sharp attack on the poorest people of all, the people who because of their poverty were the least organised and the least able to defend themselves.
Many, if not most, Labour voters were astonished at the speed with which the Labour Party cast off its old commitments to the dispossessed. This sense of shock was palely reflected in the House of Commons where 47 of Labour's 411 MPs voted against proposed cuts in benefits for lone mothers. The 47 came mainly from the old left. Not a single one of 'Blair's babes', the new women Labour MPs who preened themselves for the media on 2 May, managed to vote against the cuts or even to abstain.
But the vote against the government is the first real sign of dissent from New Labour capitalism, the first indication that even in parliament there are people who recognise the true course of their government: a course plotted for them by their hated predecessors, the Lilleys, the Redwoods and the Howards. The only recognisable difference between this government and the Tories is in its support. New Labour came to office on the votes of people, many of them poor, who wanted a change in political direction and had grown to detest the Tory priorities which now commend themselves to Labour ministers. A revolt is smouldering. It should be fanned into flames.
The battle to save the planet from potential environmental catastrophe was dealt a significant blow at last month's Global Climate Summit in Kyoto. As a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth put it, 'This is a complete sell out of the expectations of millions of people around the world who had their hopes raised by this conference.'
The summit, which ran for 11 days, almost collapsed in chaos in the last 24 hours. A treaty was finally agreed upon which is supposed to guarantee 5.2 percent cuts in the gaseous emissions, primarily of carbon dioxide, which are believed to be heating up the planet through the 'greenhouse effect'. However, the treaty is fundamentally flawed and falls far short of what is needed to halt global warming.
Over the last few months there have been some media reports of disagreements between climatologists about global warming. Such reports have been seized on by oil companies and other industrialists, misleadingly calling themselves the 'Global Climate Coalition', who want to block any kind of action which cuts into their profits.
As with any scientific prediction, it is impossible to know the full extent about what is happening to the weather. But while there is some disagreement regarding the nature of the environmental changes which global warming will cause, all scientists involved agree that global warming is taking place. We are already seeing some of the signs. In Alaska the permafrost is melting, causing landslides and massive damage to roads and communication networks. Spring in the northern hemisphere is now beginning a week earlier than it did 20 years ago. If that sounds quite pleasant, paradoxically, by interfering with the gulf stream, global warming could in the future send northern Europe into a new Ice Age.
Even governments have been forced to acknowledge the threat. Last August US President Bill Clinton said, 'The science is clear and compelling; we humans are changing the climate. No nation can escape its responsibility.' Yet Clinton and the US big business groups that he bows to did precisely that.
The US intransigence over acceptable limits for emissions almost scuppered and certainly fatally weakened the Kyoto Summit. The US produces a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Despite the fact that it pledged to limit carbon dioxide emissions to their 1990 levels by the year 2000, they will have risen by 14 percent by the millennium. At Kyoto the US only agreed to make the cuts in its emissions proposed in the final treaty after certain 'special provisions' were made.
The most alarming of these will allow rich countries like the US to buy pollution 'quotas' off other countries. So the US will avoid taking action at home to limit its own domestic emissions. One scientist has estimated that such a scheme could allow the US to remain 15 percent above the official target set at Kyoto. A likely partner in such a deal would be Russia, whose carbon dioxide emissions have fallen dramatically since 1990 - but for purely accidental reasons, in this case the collapse in its economy which followed the introduction of the market.
There are other serious faults with the final treaty that emerged at Kyoto. Emissions from aircraft and shipping will be disregarded despite the fact that they account for as much as 5 percent of the total. It was not surprising that one commentator remarked that the treaty is 'so full of loopholes it looks like a Swiss cheese'. Meanwhile, back in Washington even as the treaty was announced, the US senate was already talking of ignoring it.
Some of the biggest critics of US intransigence have been EU countries like Britain and Germany which have been prepared to accept much bigger cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. However, this stance is undoubtedly helped by the fact that emissions in both countries have been falling for quite circumstantial reasons - in Britain's case because of the devastation of the coal industry.
Labour's John Prescott and Robin Cook have been publicly critical of the US stand. The problem is that New Labour accepts the market system which is the primary cause of the inability of world leaders to take the decisive measures needed to stop global warming. Individual capitalists may recognise the madness of allowing the planet to drift towards possible environmental catastrophe but they will not accept measures which threaten their profits. Michael Meacher, the environment minister, admitted as much when he said, 'We in the EU cannot be expected to reduce our emissions more than our competitors.'
Global warming is not inevitable. It could be combatted. Investment into ways of reducing and cleaning up emissions could be combined with proper provision of insulation in buildings. A primary cause of carbon dioxide pollution in Britain comes from the increasing number of vehicles on the roads. Investment in public transport could make a major difference. Instead of pollution 'quotas', genuine aid could flow from richer countries to the developing world to help it industrialise without endangering the planet.
The problem for New Labour is that these all clash with the priorities of the capitalist system. The market cannot solve the problem - it created the problem in the first place. It becomes ever clearer that fighting for the planet cannot be about half measures but instead involves challenging the capitalist system as a whole.
Exactly 400 years ago in Florence a group of bored aristocrats hit upon a form of entertainment so bizarre and extravagant and, I would say, heart stopping that we are still counting the cost today. Opera became the executive toy of choice for despots across Europe, with several ducal courts going broke and patronage continuing through the centuries as the only way for this art form to survive. Today, culture minister Chris Smith is wrestling with the same question of how and if to continue funding the Royal Opera House (ROH) in a mire of scandal.
Any arts institution would be in trouble after five years of the Tories' standstill grants and many theatres are in deep trouble across the country. Cutbacks in education have also made it less likely that children are introduced to theatre, let alone ballet and opera, at an early age, thus restricting the obvious breeding ground for future audiences. Against this backdrop, where even if prices dropped to something affordable at the ROH many people wouldn't think of trying it, the story unfolds of the Twilight of the Nobs.
Jeremy Isaacs, general director for ten years, fought the Arts Council for decent funding and then gave up. Out of 900 staff 100 were made redundant in January 1996 because of management's failure to balance the books. Isaacs left in December 1996, unashamedly continuing to collect his £10,000 a month salary until the expiry of his contract in September 1997. He also left behind shambolic touring plans for the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera while the Covent Garden building is being redeveloped with £78 million of lottery money.
The redevelopment was overdue on health and safety grounds alone, but the lottery money, being the only means by which it could afford to happen, was a public relations disaster, awarded days after the hugely unpopular lottery acquisition of the Churchill papers. Despite the ROH's pledge to raise £100 million itself from private sponsors, tabloids screamed about handouts to toffs and twits in tights. Far more damning was the fact that £2.5 million of the lottery money was then spent making another 300 staff redundant.
With Isaacs' departure, Genista McIntosh of the National Theatre took over as chief executive but was then ousted within months by the new chairman of the ROH board, Lord Chadlington, aka Peter Gummer, also chairman of Tory-election-disaster Shandwick PR and brother of the hideous Selwyn. Gummer had been the chairman of the lottery advisory panel of the Arts Council that awarded the £78 million to the ROH and then promptly crossed the road to spend it. He then got Chris Smith, days after taking office, to agree to allow his chum, Mary Allen (secretary general of the Arts Council) to step straight into Genista's shoes.
The boards of most theatres have traditionally been self perpetuating oligarchies but for the 'old boy' network to extend to the chief executive was the last straw. Chris Smith, covered in confusion, ordered a parliamentary select committee enquiry that came out with the recommendation in December that the board chairman and chief executive should all resign. Chris Smith also put Richard Eyre at the head of an enquiry due to report in May 1998 into whether costs could be cut by selling London's other opera house, the Coliseum, and turning Covent Garden into a receiving house for the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and English National Opera - a fundamentally impractical scheme.
Meanwhile, as the ROH limps from one bankruptcy crisis to the next, the unions have been fighting a trench war, aware that they really could all lose their jobs but also unwilling to carry the can for a combination of cuts and mismanagement. The BECTU negotiations for the stage staff, for example, have hit deadlock over the management's unwillingness to set a limit of 15 hours on a working day and incapacity to guarantee even one day off in seven: while the wardrobe and shoe departments find themselves housed in an underground car park with inadequate ventilation. Resignations at board level may make Chris Smith more popular but make no difference to the wages and conditions of the people who make it happen on stage.
In conclusion, whatever you may think of opera and ballet (and the ROH champions the highest standards in both), the ROH is caught in a contradiction between 34 percent public subsidy (the lowest in Europe) and 66 percent ticket revenue and private sponsorship. It can't be a 'theatre for the people' as long as it relies so heavily on the rich. The hybrid cannot be privatised but, without more state subsidy (that the Labour government categorically refuses to give), how can it be made more accessible, either through education projects or lower ticket prices? The nobbling of the nobs is desirable and entertaining but the question of who subsidises the cultural health of this country lies behind the rolling heads. What Labour decides to do with the ROH will not just stop with this theatre.